Ponies in conservation grazing

Dartmoor pony - Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Suffolk Wildlife Trust uses several different breeds of pony to graze a variety of Suffolk Wildlife Trust nature reserves, ranging from wet fen to dry heath. Ponies have shown themselves to be excellent conservation grazers capable of thriving in the toughest conditions. Steve Aylward explains...

It might seem a little odd seeing Exmoor ponies on the Sandlings Heaths, a mix of pony breeds at Hen Reedbeds or Polish ponies grazing Redgrave & Lopham Fen, but they are all there for a very good reason. Each breed has been chosen to graze a particular habitat based on its natural grazing characteristics as well as their temperament.

While the majority of Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserves that need grazing are grazed exclusively by cattle owned by local farmers, a handful of sites are either not suitable for modern cattle breeds or are more effectively grazed by a combination of cattle and ponies. Some sites, however, can be too wet or too dry for cattle, or the quality of the grazing is too poor to sustain them, while others are too well used by the public to graze with cattle, so ponies are filling an important gap helping to maintain some of our most challenging wildlife sites.

Redgrave & Lopham Fen Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Konik ponies graze Redgrave & Lopham Fen - Steve Aylward

Redgrave & Lopham Fen

Our first attempt to use ponies for conservation grazing was in 1994 at Redgrave & Lopham Fen when a small herd of New Forest ponies were brought on to the reserve at the start of the restoration project. It was hoped that they would graze the margins of the fen, but after a few months it became apparent they were not suited to the site. They also demonstrated remarkable escapology skills regularly jumping the boundary fences. So the New Forest ponies were shipped off to pastures new that better suited them and a lot of thought was given to how best graze a difficult habitat like Redgrave & Lopham Fen.

Derek Moore, the director of Suffolk Wildlife Trust at that time, had links with conservationists in Poland and had seen a breed of pony, closely related to the original European wild horse, grazing polish wetlands. This, it seemed, might just be the sort of animal needed to graze a wetland like Redgrave & Lopham Fen, so despite a huge amount of ‘red tape’, four pregnant mares and a stallion were brought from Poland to the fen in 1995. It was immediately obvious that these animals were ‘home from home’ on the fen happily standing knee deep in water grazing reed and sedge. The mares all produced foals (unrelated to Nord, the stallion) which were the foundation for a breeding herd. After this initial success, the herd was enlarged further with Koniks from a conservation grazing scheme in Holland.

Konik ponies - Jamie Smith

Konik ponies - Jamie Smith 

Today Suffolk Wildlife Trust still uses Koniks, the majority being used to graze valley fen reserves while the stallion, Nord, together with a gelding and a mix of other pony breeds graze Hen Reedbeds alongside some British White cattle. Many other conservation organisations in the UK have followed the Trust’s lead and Koniks are now the breed of choice for most fen or reedbed grazing schemes and are widely used in The Broads for example.

The Sandlings

The Sandlings Heaths were the next habitat where it was felt that ponies could make an important contribution, and in 2006 the Trust acquired a small group of Exmoor ponies. The Exmoors were chosen because they are particularly hardy but also very good on sites that are well used by the public. They naturally keep their distance from people and they are not intimidated by dogs which is a valuable trait on heaths that are extremely popular with dog walkers. The choice of Exmoor ponies for heathland grazing proved to be a good one and Suffolk Wildlife Trust has since acquired more Exmoor ponies.

Exmoor pony - Ross Hoddinott

Exmoor pony - Ross Hoddinott

Knettishall Heath

Following the Sandlings success with Exmoor ponies, when the Trust acquired Knettishall Heath in 2012 with an ambition to greatly extend the area being grazed, Exmoors were again the obvious choice. We inherited a small number of Exmoor ponies from Suffolk County Council who had previously grazed a part of the heath when they looked after it, but with the help of the Moorland Mousie Trust (an Exmoor Pony charity), numbers were increased to the 18 who now graze a huge area of heath and woodland.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Exmoor ponies at Knettishall Heath - John Ferguson

Care, Welfare and Handling

In comparison to cattle or sheep, ponies are generally a lot easier to look after. The breeds the Trust use require only a modest amount of intervention and as long as they have access to water and a good boundary fence, they largely take care of themselves. Routine checking is often done by volunteers who play an essential role supporting our grazing projects. Worm treatments are typically given only when needed and can be based on worm egg counts in the animal’s dung. The ponies do need to be seen by a farrier as while they are not shod and their hooves naturally wear, they occasionally need a quick hoof trim.

The biggest challenge with ponies used for conservation grazing is to find a balance between keeping the animals wary enough of people that they will not want to approach the public but not so wild that they are impossible to handle. As the ponies need to be corralled occasionally for health checks or moving they can be ‘bucket trained’ and being creatures of habit with a good appetite, once they know a routine they are usually quite compliant. Because the natural reaction of a pony that feels threatened is to run, they have to be treated in a very gentle and calm manner. Therefore, the staff and volunteers who look after the ponies have developed a great deal of expertise in managing different situations.

Future Grazing

Ponies will not replace cattle on the majority of Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserves, but they are certainly proving their worth on quite a few sites. Furthermore, the response of visitors to reserves that are grazed by ponies has been incredibly positive as ponies are not seen as intimidating in the way that cattle can be.

A major development in recent years has been recognising the value of combination grazing with different animal types. Cattle and ponies graze very differently, and, in some situations, this can be a highly effective way to improve habitat condition. Ponies are both grass-nibblers and scrub browsers while cattle are typically bulk grass eaters. These different patterns of eating can in turn create different types of habitat ranging from short ‘pony lawns’ to complex vegetation mosaics. In some places such as the Knepp Estate in Sussex, pigs are being thrown into the mix. They add yet another dimension rooting through the ground and creating lots of soil disturbance creating opportunities for weeds which in turn become a seed source for birds like the turtle dove. It is quite possible they may one day play a role alongside ponies in Suffolk.

Overwhelmingly, however, it is the more natural behaviour and aloofness of non-domesticated ponies that adds to the sense of naturalness on many reserves and on the largest sites creates a genuine wilderness feel. Our ponies might have come from the far flung corners of Europe and the UK, but there is no doubt they are here to stay in Suffolk.

Breed Profiles

Konik Polski

The Konik Polski or Polish pony is an intelligent and extremely hardy breed capable of withstanding severe cold. In Poland they cope with temperatures as low as minus 40. They are a ‘dun’ colouration, typically a pale sandy colour with a characteristic black stripe along the spine. They are quite placid and prefer to be kept in social groups but their intelligent nature coupled with their strong and athletic physique means that they take great skill to handle.

The Koniks are keen browsers and will readily eat willow, oak and thorn scrub as well as brambles.

Konik ponies grazing - Craig Hollis

Konik ponies grazing - Craig Hollis 

Dartmoor Pony

Dartmoor’s are small hardy ponies with a reputation for doing well on poor ‘keep’. Typically bay, black or brown in colour they can also be quite variable due to introductions to the bloodline. They are relatively easy to handle although unhandled ponies can be flighty.

Dartmoor ponies are resourceful and when short of grass will readily switch to eating gorse. They are also good at pushing into areas of dense vegetation and bracken.

Exmoor Pony

Exmoor’s are another very hardy breed which maintain condition extremely well even on poor ground. They are intelligent and will break ice to access water and dig in snow to reach forage. Medium sized, they are quite uniformly brown in colour with a distinctive pale muzzle and pale circle around the eye.

While preferring a grass based diet they do browse and have a particular taste for nettle roots. They tend to avoid people, which is useful on very public sites and they require skilful handling.

Exmoor ponies - Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Exmoor ponies - Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION